Themes and Meanings
Barthelme’s improvisation in this instance creates a typically divided piece: It is as much about the conventions of narrative fiction as it is about life, and thus it balances the ordered and chaotic, the recognizable and confusing, and the tragic and comic in an attempt both to attract and to repel the reader. The story appeared during the height of the antiwar turmoil surrounding the Vietnam War (late in the story the helicopters kill “a great many in the south,” though that is the section still held by the city’s forces); guerrilla warfare and memories of ghetto riots in Newark, Harlem, and Watts were fresh in the minds of everyone.
The primary issue in “The Indian Uprising” is cultural crisis both as a fact and as a literary problem. If art grows from culture, what in American culture seems to value and foster art? The first-person narrator could not say, for he seems untouched by his own sophistication—he is vicious, complacent, amoral, and self-deluded. Here Barthelme seems to offer a genuine prophetic impulse, a desire to give a warning about the chaos of this life of replaceable partners and disposable, “merely personal emotions,” and the dangers of a culture that worships cold pragmatism, chooses its heroes from among its generals and admirals, and uses its technology to make war on peasants and children. Moreover, questions about what, in a social context, is “a good life,” of what use knowledge is in finding such a life,...
(The entire section is 485 words.)